TCS Daily


How to Feed a Starving Artist

By Max Borders - May 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Max Borders: Our guest today is Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and author of the new book Good and Plenty, the Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. Welcome Professor Cowen.

Tyler Cowen: Thank you for having me.

Borders: When people think of high art, they often think of Europe. But in your new book, you argue that the American system of art subsidy may actually be superior to the present-day European system. Can you describe the two systems and tell us generally why you think ours is better?

Cowen: The Western European system is based on what are often called direct subsidies. So the government in Western Europe will supply most of the budget of a museum, of an opera company of a symphony, and the role of private money will typically be small. This is changing some what, but the general pattern is still true.

In the United States, a non-profit arts institution will usually receive 10 percent of less of this budget from different levels of government. It's a much greater role for private money.

That being said, the American government does, indirectly encourage our arts by giving tax breaks for donations to non-profits. I think the American system tends to be better because it involves more competition, more commercialism and there's greater room for innovation. Governments are notorious for being quite conservative. And Western Europe now is in a position where its governments face fiscal crisis because of aging populations, and European Union regulations. And they're having to cut arts funding. But Europeans are finding it harder to get private sector support because they're not used to the idea.

If you look at the 20th century, in virtually any area you name, consider only high culture; forget about Hollywood, forget about jazz. Look at areas like contemporary music, contemporary dance, and abstract art. Americans have been among the world leaders. And in part, it's because our institutions and our arts policies have been so effective.

Borders: You may also be familiar with Charles Murray's work Human Accomplishment.

Cowen: Sure.

Borders: And in that one, he argues that the greatest output of artistic achievement happened in Europe after around 1400 -- the Renaissance and thereafter. If you agree with the thrust of this claim, do you have any idea what incentives and institutions might have been in place at that time that led to such great output?

Cowen: This dominance of government in European arts funding is a relatively recent development, and it post-dates World War II. If you look at European artistic revolutions from the past, it will vary a great deal with time and place. You mentioned the Renaissance, but private money was extremely important during the Renaissance. And even when it was government funding, it was very different from today's government funding, where you have bureaucracy using taxpayer dollars [or Euros].

Government funding in the Renaissance would typically come from a noble, who was quite competitive and looking to improve his own status. He was really acting more as a private individual. He would keep the art that he bought, for instances, in most cases. So it had a lot of the private incentives, even it happened to be the case that the people paying the bills came from government or worked for government or held positions in government.

If you look at Beethoven, most of his money came from the market. Shakespeare supported himself through the market. French impressionism arose, and supported itself through the market. So Europe, in its most creative times typically relied more on the marketplace, than the European arts have been doing since World War II.

Borders: Let's suppose that we accept the idea that the U.S. is better at generating quality art than Europe right now, due to our institutions and so forth, and to the kind of subsidy system you identify. What do you say to the person who's furious at having to pay for Piss Christ, or even to the person who just isn't all that high on so-called "high art"?

Cowen: Well if someone doesn't want to pay taxes to support Serrano's Piss Christ, I think that's a perfectly legitimate objection. Our NEA has stopped funding artwork such as Piss Christ because of these protests. And to me that feels appropriate. Personally, I don't have any problems with a lot of those artworks, but if upsets a large number of taxpayers, I think that's a good reason not to do them.

The neat thing about the American system, with its emphasis on indirect subsidies, is that the government doesn't really have to decide what is art or what is good art. Our government does have to decide what is a non-profit institution. And this can be somewhat arbitrary, but for the most part it's legally well-defined. After that, you just let competition rip and you will get a diverse series of outputs. But, when it comes to funding Piss Christ, I would say we don't need to do it. We stopped doing it. Avant-garde art has not gone away by any means; it's still with us for better or worse.

Borders: Do you think that that concedes too much to conservatism? And are there still conservative friendly things being funded perhaps to the dismay of those on the left?

Cowen: Well I don't think it's a question of whether we're conceding something to conservatives or conceding something to people on the left. I think taxpayer dollars should be used to support programs, projects, whatever, that are genuinely in the public good. And there are a lot of things that fall under that heading; national defense is the most obvious.

But if we have something in the arts that is clearly not in the public good -- that is truly controversial and offending a large number of people, be they on the left or on the right -- my guess is government should not be involved. And it's not really doing the arts any favors to have modern art associated with government funding of Piss Christ, or Mapplethorpe, or whatever.

And if you look at Piss Christ or Mapplethorpe for that matter, other painters have made their way in the marketplace, those artists have done OK. They command good prices. So it's not the case that with no subsidy we won't have any avant-garde for those who desire it. Quite the contrary.

Borders: You write in your book, near the end: "Both the left wing 'feel good about the elevating powers of art' stance, and the right-wing 'patriotism and virtue' stance, are based on aura", which I took as another way of saying that neither side is disposed to listen to the other.

Cowen: Correct.

Borders: Your suggestion seems to be that decentralization can diffuse some of these tensions. But isn't there also something in the libertarian view that there could be robust art markets and no one need argue about matters of taste and policy?

Cowen: Oh sure. I'm all for robust art markets. And I consider myself a libertarian with a small "l".

But I still think it's the case that when we come to, say, our tax system, and we ask ourselves, "Are we committed to the view that every tax rate on everything has to be the same?" There, I think, the answer is "no." The current American system favors charitable donations. It favors donations to churches and to universities. And I think, in the long run, this is not only good for our prosperity, but it also reduces the size of government. If these institutions were not financed by donations as much as they are, it's not that they would wither away, but that the state would have a more active role in these areas.

In terms of what is the most sustainable libertarian outcome we can end up with, it's something pretty close to what we have right now with regard to tax breaks for non-profits. So a kind of pure libertarian position -- all tax rates the same -- (Or some libertarians would say "all tax rates are zero", right? That's another version of all tax rates are the same.) I don't think that's workable in today's world. And trying to get there, I don't think would give us more liberty. I think it would give us less liberty.

Borders: Government arts subsidy, whether direct or indirect, tends to benefit elites more than the poor: Does this seem right to you? And if not, what would you change about that?

Cowen: That's absolutely true. Government subsidies to country and western music, or for that matter roller derby, are quite small. If you look at the arts people actually consume -- I give the example in the book -- the art that children consume, for example. Children like colorful toys. To them, that's art. They enjoy it. We don't subsidize children's toys, either.

So I think it's a good reason to be cautious with subsidy. And if we look at subsidies through the tax system; again, this indirect subsidy idea we find that is really not something exclusively benefiting elites. For instance, charities, receive some of the subsidy indirectly, and those charities help the poor. Poor people give to churches in very large numbers; that's about 60 percent of all donations in the U.S. going to churches. And by no means is most of that giving from wealthy people. So those people benefit also. Viewing the regime as a whole, it's really not the case that the elites are benefiting, but rather -- through this decentralization, through this diversity -- many different groups are.

Borders: It seems that part of your motivation for having written this is your love of art.

Cowen: Correct. Absolutely.

Borders: As a consumer of art, what are some of the creations -- well known or not well known -- that have moved you most deeply? And, if you can describe them, why they moved you so? And do you know if they were the result of art subsidy?

Cowen: That's a very tough question. What has moved me most deeply? In music, probably it's Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Bach worked for municipal governments for a good bit of his life. Towards the latter part of his life, he traded more in markets, but that was a time when the world was not very wealthy, and government had an important role in supporting art.

We shouldn't go back and say government shouldn't have supported Bach, I mean that's just stupid. But to ask a more general question: should we have had institutions that put so much wealth in the hands of government? And then the answer is no. And of course, over time, Europe moved in a direction of having a more widely distributed set of capitalist wealth.

Mozart mostly supported himself by giving concerts, and giving piano lessons. He received some support from nobility. But for the most part, Mozart thrived commercially. And if his finances were bad towards the end of his life, it's because he had a gambling problem and he squandered his money. But Mozart made a very good living through markets. The same is true of Beethoven.

If you're looking at the arts today, what moves me most in music, I'm a big fan of Nirvana, of Beck, for instance. My Bloody Valentine.

Borders: Great album.

Cowen: Tremendous album. Those would be my favorites. And to the best of my knowledge it's fully privately supported, no role for government whatsoever.

If you look at painting, in the 20th century, Picasso, and Matisse. Again, fully private, no problem doing well. Those would be two artists I like very much. (Jasper Johns, Roy Lichenstein, Andy Warhol), all favorites of mine, again -- down the line -- private, private, private.

Borders: Some you list in the book -- de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and of course Jackson Pollock -- these folks had a mix of subsidy and private contribution. Of course, the foundations like Guggenheim probably got some subsidies themselves. But ultimately they did benefit. And I guess you could say society benefited from those folks' art. Do you happen to like them?

Cowen: I like those folks. They were supported in the 1930s by some of the New Deal programs. And I think you can make the following claim: if your economy has completely fallen apart (arguably for reasons due to government) but if that's the case, there will be a lot of people out of work, including a lot of artists. And if you give them small subsidies in that situation, it probably will be good for the arts.

I don't think the correct lesson is we, therefore, should mimic what the New Deal did in every regard. I think the correct lesson is it's very bad to have a depression because you want to be in a position where your good creators don't need those subsidies. And for the most part, we've managed that. But definitely, those people received aid, and it helped them. They didn't receive massive amounts of aid, but for short periods of time, it helped them keep on going.

Borders: That reminds me of something you wrote in your book on the "Haitian Argument." Can you talk a little bit about that?

Cowen: Well, it's a real question for people who favor not only significant art subsidies but many other government programs; there's a tendency to compare those programs to obviously unappealing alternative uses of the funds. So people will say: "Well, should we support this program or ..." and then they'll name some ridiculous pork-barrel spending ... And the answer then seems obvious, "well of course, we should have this program. It's better than that highway to nowhere in Alaska, or maybe something ridiculous the military has done."

But that's stacking the deck. An alternative question is to ask is: "What about the Haitians?" So we could take that money spent on your favorite program, whatever that program may be (it's not even a point about the arts) and ask why don't we just send it to Haiti and drop it from a helicopter? And Haiti per capita income ranges between 250 to $400 a year depending how you measure it. People are desperately poor. The literacy rate is 15 percent, and life expectancy is around 40 years. So these are people, to say the least, who can use the money. It's going to make a difference. It's not going to make them wealthy, but it's going to mean that tonight they eat instead of going hungry. And I think that's the kind of asset test every program should ask itself. Why are we doing this rather than sending the money to Haiti ... "What about the Haitians?"

Borders: Do you believe that aesthetic value is both real and transcendent, or subjective?

Cowen: I believe that aesthetic values are real and objective. But when you say transcendent I'm not so sure, because the value of art, I think, is independent of weather we believe in any particular religion. So I very much believe in Art. I believe it's representing some real kind of beauty, or spark, or energy. And this is not just Beethoven or Michelangelo. I think it's true about TV. If you watch the Sopranos or Battlestar Gallatica (those shows are good) or Lost because they're getting at something real in human existence. And it is objective, it is out there ... but I don't think it's beyond the stars. I think, ultimately it's in us. It's nature. It's in the nature of mankind.

Borders: Professor Cowen, thank you so much for your time.

Cowen: Thank you.

To listen to the podcast of this interview, click here.

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9 Comments

Good interview
I have to say I'm very much in agreement with Mr. Cowen -- I'm even tempted to listen to the podcast.

No Logic Here
Let's see, it's a "legitimate protest" to object to '**** Christ'. Why isn't it legitimate to protest any or all artists or government funding of the arts. Is there some particular number or percentage of people who protest that makes such protest "legitimate"? And then Cowen calls himself a libertarian while saying that zero taxes would give us less liberty. There is no logic here and no libertarian ideas.

Silly Censorship
In the abpve comment, TCS would not let me say "p.i.s.s" while they allow it in the article itself. What nonsense.

Re: Artists who like to stir up hornet's nests . . .
Hi Joanie,

OK. So if the artist doesn't sell his/her piece that we taxpayers have paid for, are we just supposed to write it off and be happy to "support the arts"? Is there any class of people who should not be wards of the state or subsidized welfare recipients of taxpayer largesse?

Re: I'm not saying that they SHOULD get the money . . .
LOL. We can almost agree. The part I object to is the government "insisting" on giving them taxpayers' money. Certainly I agree that they should give it back, but they should not be able to get their hands on it in the first place. It's not the government's money; it's yours and mine. The handout is based on forcibly taking our money (aka taxation) and doing stuff with it that politicians and bureaucrats want to do. I may want to fix my roof or my kid's teeth but I may not be able to afford it because the government is stealing my money and giving it to somebody else, perhaps to make a painting.

The Human-Artistic-Creative Paradigm
Each individual human being possesses a unique, highly
developed, and sensitive perception of diversity. Thus
aware, man is endowed with a natural capability for enact-
ing internal mental and external physical selectivity.
Quantitative and qualitative choice-making thus lends
itself as the superior basis of an active intelligence.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. His title describes
his definitive and typifying characteristic. Recall
that his other features are but vehicles of experi-
ence intent on the development of perceptive
awareness and the following acts of decision and
choice. Note that the products of man cannot define
him for they are the fruit of the discerning choice-
making process and include the cognition of self,
the utility of experience, the development of value-
measuring systems and language, and the accultur-
ation of civilization.

The arts and the sciences of man, as with his habits,
customs, and traditions, are the creative harvest of
his perceptive and selective powers. Creativity, the
creative process, is a choice-making process. His
articles, constructs, and commodities, however
marvelous to behold, deserve neither awe nor idol-
atry, for man, not his contrivance, is earth's own
highest expression of the creative process.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. The sublime and
significant act of choosing is, itself, the Archimedean
fulcrum upon which man levers and redirects the
forces of cause and effect to an elected level of qual-
ity and diversity. Further, it orients him toward a
natural environmental opportunity, freedom, and
bestows earth's title, The Choicemaker, on his
singular and plural brow.

- from The HUMAN PARADIGM

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